High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the oft-maligned and omnipresent sweetening agent, may be in for a major change if corn refiners get their way. The ingredient itself, frequently cited for its overconsumption and the target of many recent consumer health initiatives, won’t undergo a transformation, but the way it’s referred to on food labels could, pending a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision.

In response to a decreased tolerance for HFCS among consumers and some manufacturers, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which is made up of HFCS manufacturers, officially petitioned FDA to allow a change in the term used to describe the ingredient from HFCS to “corn sugar.” HFCS is defined as corn syrup that has undergone enzymatic conversion of a portion of its glucose into fructose, and there are many commercial varieties, with the major uses in the U.S. market coming in the form of soft drinks and condiments like ketchup.

The proposed name change might eventually lead to HFCS simply being referred to as “sugar.” FDA has yet to decide on the matter, but in the meantime the agency has scolded the CRA harshly for its $50 million dollar marketing campaign, launched in 2008, that makes prominent use of their desired term, “corn sugar.” Says James S. Turner, Esq., chair of non-profit consumer action group Citizens for Health, “The agency is currently considering the petition of the CRA and though FDA has admonished them to refrain from pushing their new proposed name until FDA acts one way or the other, the CRA continues to push the unallowable name on its Web site and in its ads.”

Recently, the CRA has had a lawsuit brought against it by a group of sugar farmers and refiners that argue the potential name change could confuse consumers accustomed to seeing HFCS on labels, while also rendering harm to the sugar industry. The obvious obstacle for an FDA decision in favor of the CRA’s wishes is the fact that there is already a food ingredient officially called “corn sugar”: dextrose. “The corn folks say very little dextrose ('corn sugar') is actually used, and that HFCS is misleading because the sweetener is not high in fructose. FDA could buy this argument,” Turner says. The CRA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in September, one which U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall is currently considering and Turner believes is likely to be denied.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2011 (online 10/14/11)